An account of my Bartlett funded trip to Dumbarton, Scotland, on the brink of the EU referendum – which now seems like an age ago. Questioning what we consider to be our national and cultural identities, the trip came to be contextualised by the vote, making my return to the Friday morning result all the more poignant.
Having given myself a ninety-minute stopover between trains with no plan and a heaving rucksack, I spend my time wandering aimlessly around Waverly Station and Princes Street Gardens. As anyone familiar with this part of Edinburgh knows, the drone of bagpipes can be heard almost constantly above the sound of traffic and tourists – usually from a busker dressed in full highland gear on the corner by the Scott Monument.
Passing Irn-bru trucks, gift shops selling t-shirts and shortbread and Walter Scott quotes plastered on walkways and escalators I can’t say that my fascination with Scotland is entirely removed from the image the tourist industry needs to push. Yet, though I love Edinburgh, this flying visit is the first time that this saturation of Scottish cliché has really bothered me. Though it doesn’t take away from my love of its history, its friendly people, the beautiful architecture, the splendour of Arthur’s Seat overlooking a lively metropolis.
A few years back on my foundation course in Camberwell, south London, a Canadian friend once declared with awe, “that church on the corner is older than my hometown.”
I like to visit the Scottish National Gallery, preferably on a quiet morning so I can have the paintings to myself. The attendants shuffle about in tartan-print trousers.
Dumbarton is a town on the north bank of the river Clyde, northwest of Glasgow. The name comes from the Scottish Gaelic Dùn Breatann meaning ‘Fort of the Britons’. It was once the seat of the ancient medieval kingdom of Strathclyde. In the weeks preparing for this trip, most of the tourist advice I read, besides recommending a visit to the castle and the Denny Tank Museum, would quickly move on to other places of interest beyond the town. Dumbarton seemed like a prime location for getting to other places. But when the train finally arrives at Dumbarton Central and I see the distant, rolling hills which border the town, I feel as though I have come to a very interesting and beautiful place. Dumbarton is not Edinburgh though, and a precocious art student with a Canon DSLR in tow stands out. Walking past council estates, bingo halls, supermarkets and pubs, I feel anxious that the people I pass can tell that I’m southern. It is the anxiety of feeling foreign – though I hasten to acknowledge my privilege that I can hide this fact if I keep my mouth shut. The people I would meet here would know me as a tourist from London (yet how can I convey to them that I’m even sure if I consider that ‘home’, in my dialect which becomes more pronounced the further north I go)?
Though I have a camera to take photographs and footage for a possible film project, settling into my room at the B&B, I worry that I might not be able to find enough to do over the next three days.
David Byrne had brought me to Dumbarton. He was born here in 1952 before his family emigrated to North America not long after.
“My family came from Scotland, then they went to look for work. They found some work in Canada. There was work there… then they went to Baltimore to look for more work.” (Interview with Jools Holland, 2004)
Though I’m sure David Byrne wasn’t singing about Scotland, what I come across in my initial explorations of the town resonate with a lot of Talking Heads lyrics: vast retail parks with plenty of parking, disused factories, industrial sites, and – I must confess – my own ‘urbanist’ fear of the small town. Yet Dumbarton strikes me as a place where the sublime and mundane meet in a beautiful poignancy. The local Morrisons is situated on the backdrop of the magnificent Dumbarton Rock; the old whisky factory, demolition of which was begun in the 90s, stands burnt out on the side of the road to the town centre (later that evening I pass a fire crew attending to a small blaze that had started on the rough grassland of the site). It is a stereotype of the North American to claim a distant heritage to ‘mother Europe’. Scotland enjoys a healthy flow of tourism from the US. Here a McDonalds and a Frankie and Bennie’s sit on the edge of the retail park, overlooking the road to Glasgow.
For my visit I have brought a walking guide compiled by the West Dunbartonshire Heritage Trail which details historical, social and architectural sites of interest around the town. Whoever wrote it was not shy of expressing their dismay for the unsympathetic modern redevelopments of otherwise wonderful examples of Scotland’s architecture. The 1968 extension to the public library, for example, doing “no architectural favours to the original.”
I had been given a very warm welcome to the Positano B&B by the owner: a woman called Concetta. It was her mother Carmen who would be preparing my breakfasts for the next three mornings. I had been hoping to meet some American tourists at the B&B and possibly broach the subject of David Byrne with them, however at this time I was the only guest. But this gave me Carmen’s cooking, conversation and unerring generosity all to myself. She has been helping her daughter to run the B&B for twelve years now. Their family come from Italy and though Carmen was born in Scotland she grew up in the small village of Filignano until her father decided to move the family to Glasgow permanently when she was seven or eight years old.
“It’s mostly farmland there and there wasn’t much work.”
Concetta (“or Tina as I call her”) and her siblings were born and raised in Dumbarton.
Carmen’s father would’ve been one hundred this year and they still go back to Italy to visit family and stay in the house he renovated. The rooms in the B&B all have Italian names, after places of significance to their family. Across the hall from the kitchen/dining room the plaque on a door reads Filignano.
She says that everyone is very friendly in Dumbarton, that that’s what the American tourists seem to notice in particular. She prefers Glasgow to Edinburgh: Glasgow feels like a newer city. A lot of the buildings are newer. It’s a city for young people. Edinburgh is older and attracts older people interested in history.
“Though who isn’t interested in their history.”
Dumbarton is largely a commuter town. Out the window we watch parents dropping off their children for the day at the nursery next door. Most of them will be heading to work in Glasgow.
Carmen gives me lots of suggestions for things to do in the region. When I say that I’m considering spending the day in the town she encourages me to go and see more interesting things elsewhere.
The Denny Tank Museum
Dumbarton used to have an affluent shipbuilding industry at the centre of which were William Denny and Brothers Company – one of the most famous of the Clyde shipyards – founded in 1840. The first of its kind, the Denny Tank was an indoor testing facility. Boat hull designs would be cast from wax and tested in the water tank to perfect their shape for speed and aerodynamics. I am the first visitor to the museum that day and a young man about my age gives me a tour, telling me all about shipbuilding in Dumbarton and the importance of the Denny company during the Second World War. The industry died out by the 60s as Denny’s investment into hovercraft technology didn’t provide the viable future for the company they had hoped. He also tells me about the burnt-out whisky factory which can be spied from the windows of the museum.
I wonder if he likes Talking Heads but there doesn’t seem to be a good moment to ask.
In the Superintendent’s meeting room I come across an older employee preparing to sketch out scale dimensions of the TS Queen Mary – a 1930s paddle steamer built in Dumbarton by the Denny Company. The ship has recently been returned to the Clyde and there are plans to restore it and berth her permanently in a dry dock in Glasgow. Before that they want to sail her around for a while as a floating restaurant. He tells me this with a knowing, cynical look, “they always think it’s a good idea but these things never work.”
The measurements he is marking out on a diagram have been requested for the building of the dry dock and he is working with books from the museum’s archive. In our technological, information-saturated age, I love to see this active use of original archival material.
He tells me more about the history of the shipbuilding industry in the region; that it was an important provider of work and training for young boys, considering this was before the introduction of the Welfare State. The poorest Scots were very short and he claims that even to this day, a tall Scot is an indication of affluence (though i’m not yet sure if this hereditary aspect is true…)
Upstairs in the old tracer analysis room he talks me through the exhibits on display – most of which are from the war effort. I’m struck most by a compact mechanical calculator. One of the first of its kind, the designer Curt Herzstark was an Austrian Jew sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Called upon to design a special mechanical calculator for the Nazis as a gift to the Fuhrer, this preferential treatment and his delaying the finishing of the calculator subsequently saved his life. Contemplating the calculator in the museum display I think of an Austrian friend who, at this time, is making her own trip around Scotland with her parents.
On my way out I thank the younger man who first showed me around. The museum is still quiet but the café is beginning to get busy.
After a long walk along the north bank of the Clyde I head back to town and sit for a while in the public library. If you like a good library I highly recommend it. The study spaces are quiet and comfortable and it houses extensive local and family history archives. At the museum I had picked up a postcard showing an aerial view of the town, castle and dockyards during the war. I wondered if the Byrnes might’ve lived in one of the houses pictured that were demolished to make way for the retail park. I realise I could probably find out all I want to know about the Byrne family in this library but I’m not convinced as to what I would gain from that.
Outside, across the busy roundabout, a bronze statue of Peter Denny stands in front of Dumbarton’s Municipal Buildings.
Back at my room in the B&B I am getting more and more attached to a tartan blanket I found in the wardrobe.